If I Live to be 100:
Lessons from the Centenarians

by Neenah Ellis


Three Rivers Pr, 2002. ISBN 1400051428.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 05/06/2004

Nonfiction: Elders

Neenah Ellis produced "One Hundred Years of Stories" for NPR's "All Things Considered". While researching and writing for the program, she discovered a good deal about herself. If I Live to be 100 is a revealing memoir intertwined with stories of those who have learned the art of living. Her personal awareness blooms as she listens deeply to those who have lived to be 100. What begins as an American history project becomes, in her words, "a search for living well." Not necessarily long [for her], but well.

Ellis obviously favored a delightful centenarian named Ruth Ellis. [Maybe because they both had the same last name.] The author devotes three chapters to this black, lesbian woman who was loved and cared for by dozens of others. She writes of herself and Ruth, "I've spent a lot of time furthering my career, myself and following some vague notions about truth. I've spent a lot of time trying to be smart instead of trying to do good, admiring "smart" people instead of good people. When I see how Ruth touches people, when it is such a huge physical effort for her, I realize I have a long way to go."

She also writes of a proselytizing Oklahoman who wants to get married. He does find a Christian woman with whom he spends the rest of his life. They had a blissful nine months together before he died peacefully, and she packed up and went back home to Louisiana, richer for the experience.

Ellis also writes of Abraham Goldstein still patiently tutoring students at the age of 103. Helen Boardman finds second love at 97—a younger man who has a hard time keeping up with the vivacious woman. In the epilogue, Ellis writes that this couple has moved into a nursing home together, she at 107 and he at 87.

Another interview that captivates Ellis is with Margaret Rawson. "I am all listening and no thinking," she writes. "It's a good feeling. In my journal later I described it as 'falling.' I said I had fallen into that moment with her. I didn't consult my list of historic events, and I didn't worry about the time. I just gave myself to her and let her take me where she wanted to go."

If you are planning to live to be a centenarian, or at least to live a long, long time, you might want to read this book both for the insights gained from the centenarians and those gained by Neenah Ellis.

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